Chapter 3: Early History, From the Arcade to the Living Room

This chapter surveys the beginnings of video game music, from the arcade generation through the 8-bit systems (such as NES) and the 16-bit systems (SNES and others). This chapter is by no means an exhaustive history of early video game music, but does introduce the reader to some of the most prominent composers, games, and technologies. By the end of this chapter, the reader should be able to:

  • Identify some of the earliest video games to use sound and music,
  • Identify composers from this very early era,
  • Understand the basics of the NES and SNES sound production and how it impacted composers,
  • Understand the how the role of sound and music changed from the arcade to the living room.

3.1 The Earliest Uses of Music in Games: The Arcade

The earliest arcade games contained no sound whatsoever. Some very early games, such as Pong (1972) and Computer Space (1971) used very minimal sound effects, but no music or soundtrack. During the 1970s, when arcade games became popular, sound was primarily stored on large analog cassettes. These cassettes were expensive and prone to breakage, and thus unfavourable and very infrequently used in arcade cabinets. With the ability to use digital means such as computer chips to produce electrical impulses that result in sound waves, adding a musical or sound producing component became more practical. Sound was originally introduced, especially to the title screens of arcade games, as a means of luring customers to play the game. Some of the earliest games to use music or sound in their title sequences are Gun Fight (1975) and Pac-Man (1980). However, neither of these games had continuous musical soundtracks that looped once gameplay began. The first arcade game to contain a looping and musical soundtrack (not just sound effects) was Space Invaders (1978). While very musically limited (it consisted of the same four notes repeated over and over), the remarkable aspect of this soundtrack was that it responded to the player’s actions. For example, the music speeds up if the player is about to lose the game, and slows down once the player begins to succeed. This is a very important component of game music and something that we will continue to explore later in the theoretical section of this book. The interactivity of video games is largely what separates them from other media, such as film. Therefore, music for interactive media should have its own unique characteristics.

The previous chapter discussed both synthesis and digital audio. Until 1980, all game sound was created using synthesis, at which point games began using limited amounts of digital audio (although synthesis would remain the primary method of sound generation for a long while). Rally-X (1980) was the first game to make use of digital audio samples. Other notable games are Stratovox (1980), which was the first game to use the synthesis of speech, and Gyruss (1983), the first game to use both synthesis and samples. At this point, the use of music in games was quite common, especially with the widespread implementation of FM synthesis in 1980. The first video game to use FM Synthesis was Marble Madness (1984). As we begin to study console music, it may seem as if arcades were more advanced for their time, and in many ways they were. Since arcades had large cabinets that were built differently for each game, different sound chips could be used depending on game need. Consoles had different sound production capabilities (which will be discussed below) that may appear more limited, and this is largely because they were physically smaller and standardized. Most early home computers (PCs) also contained more advanced computer chips (sound cards) than consoles. Early PCs had FM capabilities and therefore computer games had access to a larger sound palette. This will be discussed in more detail later as we explore 16-bit technology.

3.1.1 Early Consoles

Some of the earliest consoles were released during the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as the Atari 2600 (1977), the Intellivision (1979), and ColecoVision (1982). These were designed for home consumption and therefore marked a significant change in gaming – moving into the living room, rather than an arcade in an external social environment. They also represent the standardization of hardware. All of these systems had sound chips consisting of three channels: two additive synthesis channels and one noise generator. However, at this time, the state of game music was considerably different from what we are accustomed to today; composers were not often credited, and although the consoles had a very distinctive sound due to their sound chips, not all of the music was newly composed. Much of the music in these very early games consisted of reprogrammed public domain music. Dave Warhol is one of the pioneers in sound and music during this time, and worked on games for Intellivision, such as Thin Ice (1983). Warhol continued working in the field of game sound for several years, and later wrote software that could convert MIDI files (MIDI protocol is covered at length later in this section) into sound on old consoles, such as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).[1] These older consoles had distinct sound qualities due to their sound cards, and there are many contemporary performers that reproduce music using hacked versions of these classic consoles to recreate their unique sound. This performance practice is referred to as Chiptunes.

3.2 Nintendo Entertainment System (NES): Background and Sound Specifications

The success of arcade games, coupled with the significant decrease in cost of microprocessors, helped bring more advanced consoles into the home. While other home consoles existed prior to the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), such as those mentioned in section 3.1.1, we will begin our formal study of video game music with the Nintendo Entertainment System, because it has a large body of games and identifiable composers (composers were not always credited in early games). It was also on this console that music began to contain quite complex music and distinctly original thematic content. The NES was released worldwide between 1983 and 1987 (1983 release in Japan, 1985 in North America), and ended up being one of the most popular home consoles ever made, selling almost 62 million units.[2] Composers writing for the NES had to understand the technology they were composing for just as any composer of acoustic music needs to understand the instrumentation they are writing for and its capabilities. A piano, for example, has different sound qualities and capabilities than a flute, and therefore the composer has to approach it thusly. The NES contains five channels of sound output: 2 pulse wave generators, 1 triangle wave generator, 1 white noise channel, and 1 digital sample channel. Composers were limited therefore in timbral capabilities, and they were also limited in the amount of finer control they had over each channel. The pulse channels, for example, are capable of producing 16 different volumes, as well as pitch bend, but the triangle channel only has a singular volume setting. The noise channel also has 16 volume settings, and this channel was primarily used for percussive sounds. The audio sample channel contains 6-bit depth, and allows for 16 sampling rate settings between 4.2KHz to 33.5kHz. This channel was mostly used for very short audio clips and occasionally for sound effects. It is important to keep these technological specifications in mind; composers for the NES did extremely remarkable things with these limited means.

3.3 Introduction to NES Composers

Here you will be introduced to some of the composers for the NES and their primary contributions to the history of video game music. This list is by no means complete, and you are encouraged to go out and seek other composers and music to study after completion of this text.

3.3.1 Nintendo Composers

Koji Kondo (b. 1961)

Koji Kondo was the first person hired by Nintendo for the purpose of creating musical compositions for the games (the third overall hire in game sound).[3] He is primarily known as the composer for the Mario and Zelda series, which contain some of the most universally recalled themes in video game music history. It is important to note that while Kondo was hired as a composer, his background is not in classical composition, and he cites many rock bands (and Rachmaninoff, a classical composer) as some of his influences.[4] Many composers of early video game music were more influenced by commercial popular music than film music, which would become a common influence of later composers. Super Mario Bros (1985) was Kondo’s first major score, and has been incredibly successful: the theme song is a best-selling ringtone, has been sampled by many musicians, and has been performed at many concerts worldwide (and continues to be performed). Kondo is noted for his unique rhythmic style, an artefact of composing for the NES that persisted through his later works.

Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka (b. 1957)

Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka also worked for Nintendo following his application for a sound engineering job in 1980. Like Koji Kondo, he was heavily influenced by rock music, and actively a rock musician. However, he did study classical music as well from an early age. Tanaka was a student of electrical engineering, a skill he hoped he could apply to music, and did so successfully after joining Nintendo. Tanaka even contributed to the development of the audio hardware in the NES.[5] Tanaka worked on a number of games, including the Donkey Kong series, several Mario spin-offs, and Tetris (1984). However, it is the Metroid (1986) soundtrack that represents one of his greatest contributions, as the success of the soundtrack led to the widespread desire for other video games and video game music composers to replicate it. Tanaka’s approach to Metroid was also unique, as he tried to blur the lines between music and sound effects, and this is especially apparent in the opening sequence, where elements of the title music are emulating non-musical sounds, but remain components of the musical soundtrack. In this way, Tanaka was ahead of his time; the use of non-musical sounds are featured in many games of the post-HD generation, since composers have so much control over post-production.

3.3.2 Square-Enix Composers

Nobuo Uematsu (b. 1959)

A self-taught musician, Nobuo Uematsu’s primary contribution is the extensive Final Fantasy collection. Uematsu never studied music formally, but played the piano from about the age of 10. He cites popular influences such as Elton John, Emmerson, Lake, and Palmer, Led Zeppelin, and many other progressive rock bands[6], but also world music, such as Celtic music.[7] Additionally, he is also a rock musician like Tanaka, and performed for several years in the rock group The Black Mages (who cover Final Fantasy songs) and later, the Earthbound Papas. Nobuo Uematsu is one of the most performed video game music composers worldwide, and his Final Fantasy soundtracks have multiple concert tours annually. These concerts represent some of the earliest examples of live performance of game music. Nobuo Uemastu could be considered one of the composers that has really helped to popularize video game music as a music to be listened to in its’ own right, even outside of gameplay. He has received wide acclaim, and has been referred to as “legendary” and “Beethoven of video game music.”[8]

Koichi Sugiyama (b. 1931)

Koichi Sugiyama is primarily known for the Dragon Warrior (and later Dragon Quest) series. Unlike the previously mentioned composers, Sugiyama worked extensively in music prior to his career in video game composition, having composed for commercials and films, worked as a conductor, and provided musical arrangements. His influences are also considerably more classical, and he cites Baroque composers such as Bach and Handel as strong influences, as well as Classical composers Haydn and Mozart.[9] These classical roots are very identifiable in his music, and were beneficial on a system such as the NES: while many composers tended to use the available channels in standard lead, accompaniment, and bass set-up, he incorporated Baroque-inspired counterpoint in his music, for example. The NES was unable to produce a sound envelope (dynamic change over time), and therefore short notes were used often, and successfully. Baroque keyboard instruments such as harpsichord and organ also cannot easily produce these sound envelopes, which may explain why the Sugiyama’s Baroque-style counterpoint was so effective for the NES.

3.3.3 Konami Group

The Konami group represents a group of composers who worked for the video game company Konami, originating during the NES era. Not all composers were credited in early video games, and this presents such an example. Currently there are some websites that identify the members, but at the time that the games were released, there was no information regarding who worked on the games’ soundtracks. This makes it difficult to determine whether currently listed members of the club have composed for any NES games. The Konami Group is also nicknamed the “Konami Kukeiha Club”, which literally translates to Konami Square Wave Club. Some of their more notable games were the Castlevania series, and Genso Suikoden (1995), but this group is considered responsible for essentially all of Konami’s titles released for NES. Konami composers were credited later on, including in games released for the SNES.

3.3.4 Camcom Composers and Sound Team

Like many other Japanese companies during the 1980s, Capcom’s sound department consisted of an in-house music staff comprising many sound teams that worked on games in groups. Capcom was also known for having a strong presence of women as programmers, which persisted to later eras. This trait would later prove to be a large influence on major composer Yoko Shimomura deciding to work there.[10] Like the Konami group, not all of the Capcom composers were credited during the NES period, and sometimes composers were credited by monikers or pseudonyms. For example, Kumi Yamaga was credited as herself, but also as Yamachan and Jungle Kumi. Capcom’s team-oriented departments and focus on in-house music staff persists through today, and some Capcom studios pride themselves as being some of the only remaining video game studios with in-house composers.[11]

3.4 Conclusion and Listening

Compositions for the Nintendo are for the most part timbrally and dynamically limited due to the constraints of the technology: recorded sound effects were used sparingly because of the low sampling rate, music was less continuously responsive to player input, and shorter loops were used that did not always have very smooth transitions. Nevertheless, composers found a way to create specialized soundtracks with very diverse music. Some characteristics and influences of each composer were mentioned above, but some general characteristics of NES music are as follows:

  • Mostly comprised of waveform synthesis (pulse, triangle), with samples used very sparingly,
  • Tended to be very rhythmically active, with lots of sound layering to add interest,
  • Limited timbral and dynamic palette,
  • Lots of arpeggiations and rapid (unplayable) passages – this is an artefact of the earliest video game music being handled by sound programmers, who intended to maximize sound while minimizing processing.

Below are several listening examples of soundtracks to NES games. I encourage you to seek out other NES music and discover how it compares to some of the works by composers mentioned above.

Koji Kondo: Super Mario Bros., “Overworld Theme”
Koji Kondo: Legend of Zelda, “Theme”
Koji Kondo: Super Mario Bros. 3, “Theme”
Hirokazu Tanaka: Metroid, “Title Theme”
Hirokazu Tanaka: Metroid, “Brinstar”
Nobuo Uematsu: Final Fantasy, “Main Theme”
Nobuo Uematsu: Final Fantasy, “Battle Theme”
Koichi Sugiyama: Dragon Warrior, “Main Theme”
Koichi Sugiyama: Dragon Warrior, “Castle Theme”
Konami Group: Castlevania, “Main Theme”
Konami Group: Castlevania, “Boss Battle”

3.5 Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES): Background and Sound Specifications

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) was released as a follow-up to the NES between 1990-1993 (1993 in North America). It was considerably more advanced than the NES, and contained its own audio chip, titled the Nintendo S-SMP. The SNES was capable of producing eight channels of 16-bit, 32kHz audio, a substantial increase from the NES, as well as a noise channel. An important new feature of the SNES was the possibility of sound envelope control, which gave composers the ability to change sound volume levels over time. This is different from the NES, where the volume level remains steady until a new note is played. This restriction is likely one of the reasons why so much of the musical output for the NES consists of relatively short notes and rhythmic patterns. Notes attacked on most acoustic instruments naturally decay over time, therefore a consistent volume envelope is perceived by the ear as unnatural. This control in the SNES represents a breakthrough in subtle dynamic expressivity. The other very significant change in the SNES generation was the ability of composers to compose and sequence (or put into software) music away from the console, and then hand the data for this already-composed music to a programmer who would add it to the game. This marks the beginning of the video game composer as a very separate concept from the video game music programmer.

3.6 SNES Composers

Here you will be introduced to some of the composers for the SNES and their primary contributions to the history of video game music. Just like the NES list of composers, this is not conclusive, and you are encouraged to go out and seek other composers and music to study after completion of this text. This section focuses primarily on new composers, although the works of previously mentioned composers are listed in the listening section – these works should be studied as well!

3.6.1 Nintendo Composers

Kenji Yamamoto (b. 1964)

Kenji Yamamoto worked for Nintendo as a composer as well as musical director. He began working for Nintendo in the late 1980s, and provided the soundtrack for a few NES games. He is primarily known, however, for contributing soundtracks to the Metroid series, because he took over for Hirokazu Tanaka as composer of Super Metroid (1994). Yamamoto’s soundtrack contains his own personal style, but he manages to retain the overall atmosphere created by Tanaka in the original, including non-musical sounds in parts of the musical soundtrack. Like many of the other composers, his work, especially that from the Metroid series, is featured on several touring video game music concerts, most notably Play! A Video Game Symphony.[12]

3.6.2 Square-Enix Composers

Yasunori Mitsuda (b. 1972)

Yasunori Mitsuda was a protégé of Nobuo Uematsu, and has primarily composed the soundtracks to various Role-Playing Games (RPGs). He began composing music for his own video games while in high school, and held an intern position at Wolf Team in college under the tutelage of another video game composer, Motoi Sakuraba. He was hired by Square in 1992, although he contributed sound effects rather than music for the first two years. In 1994, Mitsuda threatened to quit Square, and was subsequently assigned the soundtrack to Chrono Trigger (1995).[13] The game saw incredible success and Mitsuda continued to compose several other soundtracks, including Chrono Cross (1999), a follow-up to Chrono Trigger. His music is also widely popular, being performed in orchestral concerts, and remixed by several bands and other groups, especially through the OverClocked ReMix community, which dedicated an entire album release to music from the Chrono series.[14]

Hiroki Kikuta (b. 1962)

Hiroki Kikuta has a diverse background, and has worked as a composer as well as concept designer for video games. He graduated from university with a degree in Religious Studies, Philosophy, and Cultural Anthropology, and subsequently worked as an illustrator for Manga. He began to write music for anime and joined Square shortly thereafter.[15] Kikuta is also associated with RPG games like Mitsuda and Uematsu, and is primarily known for Secret of Mana (1993) and its’ sequels. Kikuta also cites rock influence, and claims Pink Floyd is one of his greatest inspirations.[16] He also describes making music as being like “breathing” to him, stating that “music composing is a natural behaviour for me.”[17] Kikuta’s music shares many characteristics of Mitsuda’s, such as very recognizable themes, prominent melodies, and culturally diverse musical influences. As we will see moving forward, these characteristics become consistent in the Japanese RPG (J-RPG) genre, and much such music retains certain qualities even as the technology continues to progress.

3.6.3 Namco Bandai Composers

Motoi Sakuraba (b. 1965)

Motoi Sakuraba began working at a developer called Wolf Team, which developed games for Namco, in 1989. It was here that Sakuraba tutored Yasunori Mitsuda as an intern. He started a serious musical career in college, and during this time he played in a progressive rock band (as we have seen thus far, progressive rock represents a large influence on many early game music composers). He has since composed for video games, anime, and television. Sakuraba also works as an arranger in addition to composer on several soundtracks. He is one of the most prolific video game composers, having worked on soundtracks in some capacity for over 160 games as of the writing of this book; this is in addition to his extensive work scoring for anime and television, and the production of his own solo albums. Sakuraba’s game output is very diverse as well, including several RPG soundtracks (such as Baten Kaitos and Eternal Sonata) as well as arrangement projects for party games (such as Super Smash Bros.). This separates him from a lot of the other composers, who, while also prolific, tend to compose for similar genres.

3.6.4 Mega Man Popularity and Inti Creates

Several composers worked on the game Mega Man and then proceeded to join the company Inti Creates, which was created in 1996 by several ex-employees of Capcom. Inti Creates developed primarily games in the Mega Man series, and also produced several Mega Man albums with their in-house musicians. This group had several women composers, including Manami Matsumae, who worked at Capcom beginning in 1987, and Akari Kaida, who began working for Capcom in 1994. Music from Mega Man is some of the most extensively covered and remixed, and there are several video game music cover bands that are dedicated to performing or re-creating the music from the Mega Man franchise. The Megas and Protomen are two such bands. Protomen have been active since 2003, and have released several concept albums that are related to Mega Man. The music within the albums does not include direct covers, but music inspired by the music of Mega Man. The Megas, like Protomen, released covers as well as music inspired by or elaborating on Mega Man soundtracks. The group, which became active in 2008, added their own lyrics to their covers, and they even composed extra sections to the tracks. The approaches taken by The Megas and Protomen indicate that video game music can be re-visited by musicians in extremely creative and interactive ways, which is perhaps in the spirit of gaming culture.

3.7 SNES Listening

This section has given a very brief introduction to some of the composers of music for SNES games and their characteristic sounds. There are a plethora of games for the SNES, so it is encouraged to go and seek out other games, learn about their composers, and pay attention to how their sound compares (or doesn’t compare) to the sound of the composers that have been covered so far. Generally some of the characteristics of the music for the SNES are:

  • Soundtracks are longer and more elaborate than soundtracks for the NES,
  • The timbres are beginning to sound more like orchestral instruments, and
  • The orchestration is fuller, and composers rely less on rhythmic interaction to make the soundtracks interesting (largely also due to the finer envelope control).

Kenji Yamamoto: Super Metroid, “Title Theme”
Kenji Yamamoto: Super Metroid, “Crateria”
Yasunori Mitsuda: Chrono Trigger, “Theme”
Yasunori Mitsuda: Chrono Trigger, “Time Circuits”
Hiroki Kikuta: Secret of Mana, “Theme”
Hiroki Kikuta: Secret of Mana, “Flight Theme”
Motoi Sakuraba: Tales of Phantasia, “The Dream Will Never                                                    Die”
Motoi Sakuraba: Tales of Phantasia, “Fighting of the Spirit”
Koji Kondo: Super Mario World, “Theme”
Nobuo Uematsu: Final Fantasy VI, “Terra’s Theme”
Nobuo Uematsu: Final Fantasy VI, “Battle Theme”

3.8 Sega Genesis

The Sega Genesis was also a member of the 16-bit generation, although it was released two years prior to the Super Nintendo. Sega also released its own 8-bit system, the Sega Master System, but this was never very successful in North America, and the company achieved more success during that generation with its arcade games. Sega ported quite a few of their arcade games to the Genesis, and this represented a significant portion of the console’s output. The Genesis had quite advanced sound capabilities, containing two separate sound chips: one chip contained three square wave channels, and the other chip contained an 8-bit sample channel and six FM synthesis channels. However, because these two sound chips required the programmer to use assembly language to program between them, programming sound for the Genesis was quite cumbersome. To reduce some of the coding complications, composers and music programmers relied on many pre-set sounds and instruments.[18] The Genesis, therefore, had extensive timbral capabilities, but the coding limitations prevented it from reaching its full musical potential at the time. The system did, however, make a substantial contribution in terms of its explorations with dynamic and interactive music (compare this to the SNES which relied more on already-composed material), and could be considered ahead of its time in that regard.

3.8.1 Toejam and Earl: Panic on Funkotron (1992), John Baker

Toejam and Earl contains one of the earliest examples of direct and intentional interaction between the player and the music in a game. There exists a mode within the game titled “jam out”, in which the player is able to select a track from the soundtrack, and directly affect the music. During “jam out” mode, the player enters a special type of gameplay where they are in control of various percussive objects, and essentially “jam out” with the track. This is one of the first instances of interactive musical integration, and a precursor to some of the music-based video games, such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero, which would eventually become some of the most popular games during the 2000s.

3.8.2 Looney Toons, Desert Demolition (1995), Sam Powell

Desert Demolition involves the player selecting a Looney Toon as a player character, and the movements of that character result in sounds and musical motives. Each character has its own sound palette; therefore, choosing a particular character will result in a completely different soundtrack in comparison to other characters. The soundtrack uses a technique called Mickey Mousing, which is derived from film (often used in cartoons, such as Mickey Mouse, hence the name) and involves a direct link between the character’s actions on screen and the occurring sounds.[19] This provides a very unique experience when the player has control over the character. This complete generation of sound by the player (and character) is a very interesting approach, and gives the player a completely different level of aural feedback, but it has yet to be implemented in a large collection of games. Player-generated music does exist in some more recent games, but generally with more subtle use, and realistic sound effects are much more commonly used.

3.9 Sega Genesis Listening

The sounds in Sega Genesis are very different from that of the NES, which was limited to mostly additive synthesis, and the SNES, which saw movement towards cinematic themes and away from heavily synthesized, rhythmic sound. The sound templates that were used for the Genesis to avoid excessive cumbersome coding resulted in a lot of sounds and instruments being reused, which did limit the diversity of sound, but gave the Genesis a distinct sound of its own. The music for games on the Genesis sounds much more like the earlier video game music, with quick rhythms and sound patterns that are not possible to play on traditional acoustic instruments. The Genesis also explored the interactive and player-responsive possibilities of sound more than its 16-bit counterpart. While the SNES was more advanced in many ways, with more advanced sound quality, the means with which the sound was produced meant that the SNES relied a lot more on longer composed pieces that looped and less on interactive sound.

John Baker: Toejam and Earl: Panic on Funkotron
Looney Toons: Desert Demolition
Masato Nakamura: Sonic the Hedgehog, “Labyrinth”
Masoto Nakamura: Sonic the Hedgehog, “Scrab Brain Zone”

3.10 Developments in PC Sound

PCs tended to be more advanced in their sound production capabilities than home consoles. Most of the 16-bit and FM synthesis technology I will describe below was implemented in PCs long before equivalent console developments (1988-1992).

3.10.1 MIDI Standard

The development of the MIDI standard was one of the most important breakthroughs in music technology, as it marked the creation of a standard that could be replicated across all synthesizers. MIDI protocol, which stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, allows for these devices, such as musical instruments, controllers, and computers, to connect and communicate with each other via a specific type of messaging.[20] However, for the sake of video game music the most important aspect of MIDI is that it is essentially a series of control messages that tell a synthesizer what to do, and these messages are valid across a variety of devices. This standard enabled music to be sequenced away from and computers and then programmed into them later. However, not all sound cards (synthesizers) sound the same, so there tends to be minor differences in the sound between devices. Also, while MIDI was very advanced at the time, it contained only 127 different sounds, which by our standards today is relatively small. Nevertheless, the standard enhanced game music capabilities and provided an important tool for composers and sound programmers. However, it is crucial to remember that MIDI does not contain or transmit sound, only the data necessary to instruct a synthesizer to produce sound.

3.10.2 Hardware

Computer chips advanced at a faster pace in PCs than in home consoles, with the earliest very popular sound card for PC being released in 1986 by a Canadian company, AdLib Multimedia. This sound card was capable of producing 9 channels of FM synthesis and was based on the already-existing Yamaha YM3812. To place the release date of this chip in context with consoles, the NES was released between 1983-1987. The SNES was released in 1990, four years after this popular chip was released. Also remarkable about this sound card was that it came packaged with MIDI sequencing software called Virtual Composer, and an FM synthesis program called Instrument Builder. PCs at this time were therefore designed not only for gaming, but with consideration for the individual as composer as well. This was also made apparent by the computers’ input and output arrangements; it was common for a gaming controller port to double as a MIDI input port (with adapter), and computers contained lines in for microphones and lines out to speakers.

3.10.3 iMUSE and Interactive Music

Another very important development that occurred during this time, which was invented at LucasArts in 1991, is the iMUSE system. This system was developed by Michael Land and Peter McConnell, and enhanced the interactive capabilities of game sound.[21] Video game music has always responded to player input in some way, but as the games became more complex, and the loops grew longer, musical transitions became complicated. Land and McConnell invented the system to enable smooth transitions in the music by creating a system that checked for gameplay conditions to be met at certain pre-specified checkpoints. This system varies from some of the other means of musical transitions, which often occur as a direct result of a player performing an action (such as entering a particular area). iMUSE revolutionized the way game music responded in real time, although advances such as this occurred more gradually on consoles.

3.11 Conclusion

Game music progressed substantially between the 1970s and the mid-1990s, both technologically and functionally. Technology and function drive the development of video game music, and by knowing the path through which both evolved, we gain a deeper understanding of why video game music sounds as it does. Technology became smaller in size, more accessible, faster, and contained more storage from the 1970s to the 1990s, enabling composers to create longer loops, more music, and use a wider variety of instrumental sounds. Capabilities for musical interactivity improved, and this interactive concept aids immersive sound in the later consoles. Functionally, game music began as an attempt to lure players with flashy sounds. This also evolved with the NES games containing music that sought to engage players and have catchy tunes. The 16-bit era saw some dabbling in interactive music, but the primary achievement of music functionality in this era is that of individualism, as game, character, and location themes became more unique and important.

[1] See website of Real time Associates at:

[2] See link containing historical sales data of the NES here:

[3] Otero, Joe. “A Music Trivia Tour With Nintendo’s Koji Kondo.” Imagine Games Network online magazine, Dec 10, 2014., accessed May 4, 2017.

[4] See “Koji Kondo interview” video at:

[5] Brandon, Alexander. “Shooting from the Hip: An Interview with Hip Tanaka.” Gamasutra online, Sep 25, 2002,, accessed May 4, 2017.

[6] Dwyer, Nick. “Interview: Final Fantasy’s Nobuo Uematsu,” Red Bull Music Academy Daily, Oct 2, 2014,, accessed May 4, 2017.

[7] D, Spence, Schneider, Peer, and Dunham, Jeremy. “Nobuo Uematsu Interview.” Imagine Games Network online magazine, July 9, 2004,, accessed May 4, 2017.

[8] See position of “One-Winged Angel on Classic FM Hall of Fame at:

[9] See Koichi Sugiyama’s Square Enix Music Online profile at:, accessed May 5, 2017.

[10] Dwyer, Nick. “Interview: Street Fighter II’s Yoko Shimomura.” Red Bull Music Academy Daily Online, Sept 18, 2014,, accessed June 12, 2017.

[11] Phone conversation with Capcom Vancouver employee, February 2016.

[12] Now known as re-Play: Symphony of Heroes, found at:, accessed May 5, 2017.

[13] Greening, Chris, “Yasunori Mitsuda Interview: His Life and Works.” vgmo (Video Game Music Online), October 2005,, accessed May 5, 2017.

[14] See information at:, accessed May 5, 2017.

[15] Greening, Chris, “Hiroki Kikuta profile.” vgmo, modified March 21. 2014,, accessed May 5, 2017.

[16] See interview and profile information at:, accessed May 5, 2017.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Collins, Karen. Game sound: an introduction to the history, theory, and practice of video game music and sound design. MIT Press, 2008, p. 40.

[19] Wegele, Peter. Max Steiner: Composing, Casablanca, and the Golden Age of Film Music. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014, p. 37.

[20] See Electronic Music Interactive:, accessed June 13, 2017.

[21] Collins, Karen. Game sound: an introduction to the history, theory, and practice of video game music and sound design, p. 51.